10/13/2009 11:00PM

Business starts strong at Fresno

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When the Big Fresno Fair was scheduled to run without competition from another Northern California track for the first time, fair officials were hopeful they would reap a number of benefits. But given the state of the economy in the formerly lush but now drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley, they weren't sure exactly what to expect.

As it turns out, the 2009 meet's opening six-day week handled more than last year's 10-day meet, according to Fresno racing secretary Tom Doutrich. Handle is up 27 percent compared to the first six days of last year's meet. And that doesn't even factor in the money the track receives from out-of-state wagering as Northern California's lone track in operation. Previously, the major track operating during the overlap received those funds, meaning they would go to Golden Gate or Bay Meadows.

"Ontrack attendance is through the roof," director of racing Dan White said. "With the economy, we were concerned how it would go."

Field size is decent, with Thoroughbred races averaging 7.96 runners the first six days.

Doutrich said that a number of recent improvements both to the track and to the grandstand were paying dividends. Major landscaping has taken place in the infield and around the paddock. One thousand trees planted two years ago are filling in around the track and backstretch areas.

A VIP deck has been added for fans, and Fresno remains the lone Northern California track with a Spanish announcer for one of its simulcast feeds.

Sand was added to the track last year and again this year to help maintain the consistency of the racing surface.

Fresno is even catching a break in the weather this week, with rains from a major Northern California storm expected to hit mid-week but clear before racing was to resume Thursday.

Weekend features pair of stakes

This week will see the fair's two Thoroughbred stakes, with the $50,000 Harvest Stakes for fillies and mares on Friday and the $50,000 Bull Dog for 3-year-olds and up on Sunday.

Racing overall should be strong this weekend. Doutrich said that several maiden special weight races were being offered as well as a high-level sprint and a 1 1/4-mile starter allowance race.

Sunday's Bull Dog attracted 16 nominees, including Dance With Gable, who won the State Fair Sprint, and Tribesman, who disappointed as the heavy favorite in Sacramento.

Wild Promises heading to auction

Wild Promises, a multiple-stakes-winning 5-year-old mare who captured this summer's Luther Burbank at Santa Rosa, is scheduled to be sold this fall at auction, trainer Greg Gilchrist said. Wild Promises has earned $699,610 with 13 victories in 20 starts for the estate of Harry Aleo, also the owner of Victorina and Smokey Stover.

"With her record, we know she'll go to a good home," Gilchrist said.

After winning the Luther Burbank following a five-month freshener, Wild Promises ran fourth in the Grade 2 Palomar on Sept. 9 at Del Mar. Among the highlights of her career were victories in the Grade 3 My Charmer at Calder and the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf.

Bar JF Hot Ticket bids to stay perfect

Bar JF Hot Ticket will try to wrap up a second straight undefeated season Sunday in the Mule Championship at 440 yards.

"She's following in the footsteps of Black Ruby, who was a legend, but there's a lot of excitement centered on her," White said. "Everybody wants to see her."

Trainer Ray Thomas said he's actually feeling a lot of pressure.

"People say it's just a mule, but it doesn't matter, I feel a lot of pressure," Thomas said.

Adding to the pressure is that Fresno is Bar JF Hot Ticket's hometown. She was bred and is owned by Dave Wood from nearby Harris Farms, where she spends the off season.

Thomas said that John Harris, a leading California Thoroughbred breeder and chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, visits his barn "all the time" at Fresno to check on the mule's condition.

Thomas keeps the 6-year-old mule on her usual training schedule but says he has to be careful with her.

"She loves to train," he said. "She's so big and strong, she's really tough. If I don't send her out with a pony, she'll run off."